The International Steam Pages

The Ełk Narrow Gauge Railway, Poland 2012

James Waite writes of his visit to Elk in July 2012

See also his reports of other Polish narrow gauge visits:

This railway, up in the top right-hand corner of Poland, started out as a metre gauge line located at the eastern end of what was until 1945 the German province of East Prussia. The first stretch, running south eastwards from Ełk (then known by its German name Lyck) to Zawady-Tworki, on the border with what was then Russian territory, was opened in 1913 along with a branch which headed in a generally north easterly direction from a junction at Laski Małe to Borzymy. It was severely damaged when the region was invaded by the Russian army at the start of the First World War in the following year. In 1915 the Russians were driven out and the line was extended from Borzymy to Turowo, another border village.

The line was again severely damaged during the Second World War after which this part of East Prussia became Polish territory. Conversion to 750mm gauge followed in 1951 and the first diesels arrived in 1968. PKP continued to operate passenger services on part of the system until the closure of all its remaining narrow gauge lines in 2001. By then Ełk Town Council had become actively involved in promoting tourist trains on the line. These were worked by 0-8-0’s no. Px48-1752, which had run on the line when it was regularly steam-worked and which now belongs to the council, and no. Kp-4-3760, one of the twenty Polish-built PT-4 locos which never went to the USSR. It came on loan from Warsaw Railway Museum, has since been returned to them and is now at Sochaczew museum. One of its stablemates there is now 2-6-0T Tya6-3326 (Jung 3054/1919) which worked on the line in its metre gauge days and which has recently moved to Sochaczew from Gryfice museum.

The town council took over the line completely after 2001. Tourist services operate as far as Sypitki, about 3km to the north east of the junction at Laski Małe. So far as I could tell the track on the remainder of the system is still in situ but is heavily overgrown and cannot have seen trains for many years. The council obtained a grant from the EU in 2010 to upgrade the facilities at Ełk. This appears mostly to have been spent on rebuilding the shed and works and installing truly impregnable-looking security fencing around the station site. The total cost of the project has been around Ł250,000, 35% of which the council has contributed from its own resources – quite an act of faith in the future of the line.

Ełk is not an easy place to reach from the UK. The only airport in the north east of the country was closed some years ago and probably the closest now is the new airport for low-cost airlines at Modlin near Warsaw which is more than 200km away. Ryanair and Wizz Air both fly there from the UK. There’s one daily through train to and from Warsaw. The trip by car is no fun at all. I don't think I've ever been on a road with more heavy lorries on it - or with so many do-or-die motorists overtaking them for whom oncoming traffic and bends in the road seem to present only minor obstacles. It runs from Warsaw up to the Lithuanian border which is only short and is squeezed between Belarus and the Kaliningrad Oblast, neither of which I guess is friendly to transiting western lorries. Probably the majority of them came from the Baltic states or from Finland and the road must be these countries’ principal route to most of Europe. Even though the old East Prussian border has been just a Polish district boundary for more than 65 years now few of the minor roads leading to it from each side have been joined up and there’s little alternative to using the main roads.

The town is popular with tourists. It’s surrounded by rolling countryside with lakes, woods and pretty villages – and an astounding number of storks’ nests in close proximity to each other complete with occupants. The railway provides a good viewpoint from which to admire them all though there are only distant views of the lakes. There are several good inexpensive hotels on the lakeside at the edge of the town. Most of the guests at the one where I stayed had come from the Baltic states, testimony perhaps to the remoteness of the district from the rest of the country.

In addition to several open tourist-type coaches there are also quite a number of the Pafawag-built coaches which were common throughout the Polish 750mm gauge. Unfortunately the ones that see most use are painted in a variety of bright and contrasting colours which are anything but photogenic. Wouldn't a more authentic paint scheme attract more passengers now that the railway's main clientele will be there specifically to enjoy the ambience of a historic steam railway?

There’s an interesting small exhibits display in the main building at the narrow gauge station including a large-scale map of the layout of the standard and narrow gauge as they were in 1919. Ełk used also to be home to a museum in the old standard gauge roundhouse but this closed several years ago after the parties involved could not reach agreement about finance. Several of the locos which used to be there, Kriegsloks, Ol49 2-6-2’s and Prussian P8-type 4-6-0’s, are still standing around the standard and narrow gauge yards but are in poor shape. One is reported to have been sold for scrap in late July at the time of my visit and the outlook for the others can’t be good.

As well as Px48-1752 the narrow gauge station is also home to two 600mm gauge LAS-type 0-6-0T’s, some nine of which have survived in total. One, no. Ty244, is of particular interest as it’s one of two prototypes of the class built in 1948 and which spent their working life at the Płociczno Forestry Railway 30km or so north east of Ełk and very close to where the borders of Poland, Lithuania and the Kaliningrad Oblast meet. It’s a taller and generally more quaint-looking machine than the production version. No. Ty-243, the other prototype, used to be on display outside the standard gauge station at Ełk but it was nowhere to be seen when I was there. The Płociczno Forestry Railway, incidentally, is now quite a flourishing tourist operation with daily trains between May and September. It’s entirely diesel-worked but is home to a plinthed Heeresfeldbahn-type 0-8-0T which spent its working life on the Hajnówka line more than 100km to the south.

The regular weekend trains on the Ełk line are also generally diesel-worked but Px48-1752 is used quite often for visiting coach parties. The railway was very helpful in letting me know the days when these were due to run. Many of these involve a stop at Sypitki of more than two hours for a barbeque which gave me enough time for a quick visit to Płociczno before the return run. Even though you may want to exclude the multi-coloured carriages from your photos there are still plenty of attractive photo spots along the line, especially in the woods close to Ełk and close to Sypitki station. The staff were exceptionally friendly and helpful. Well worth a visit.

Prototype LAS 0-6-0T Ty-244 (Chrzanów 1059/1948) at Ełk station with Ty56-1136, one of the production locos, behind.

Px48-1752 (Chrzanów 2247/1951) outside the reconstructed loco shed at Ełk.

Px48-1752 brews up at Ełk station early in the morning with Ty-244 and the shed and works in the background.

Px48-1752 passes a level crossing at Regielnica.

Arriving at Sypitki.

Running round at Sypitki.

The afternoon train running through the woods at Mrozy Wielki close to Ełk.

Running round at Sypitki

Px48-1752 crosses the standard gauge line into the narrow gauge station at with Kriegslok Ty2-1285 (BMAG 12499/1943) behind.

Rob Dickinson